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Puerto Rican vote in central Florida a primary mirage

Puerto Ricans are key in vote rich central Florida, but turnout likely to be low
8 Mar 2016 – 03:25 PM EST

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By Melvin Félix @mj_felix, in Orlando, Florida

Eddie Santiago spent nearly a decade in Florida before he voted for the first time.
He was never interested in politics until President Barack Obama's now famous message of change inspired him to go to the polls in 2008, and again in 2012.

But this year, Santiago, a 57-year-old Puerto Rican, is considering voting against the Democrats in the presidential election. "We need a strong president, and I don't see that in Hillary Clinton," he said over breakfast in the Puerto Rican restaurant, Melao Bakery, in Orlando.

"I prefer (Republican) Ted Cruz, who is decisive, who studied at Harvard and who knows what's good. As for Donald Trump, he'd better not even dream about (getting my vote)."

Santiago is one of many Puerto Rican voters with weak political affiliations who have multiplied in central Florida in recent decades, but who have tended to vote Democrat — 83% did so in the presidential elections of 2012, according to the political polling firm Latino Decisions.

The presidential campaigns swept through Orlando in recent days seeking votes in the Florida primary on March 15. Candidates are hoping to capture the support of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have recently arrived, fleeing an economic crisis gripping the Caribbean island commonwealth.

But these Puerto Ricans will need — like Santiago did, when he first arrived — more time to get established in Florida and get involved in the political process here.

These new arrivals are less politically partisan, and may play a less important role in the primaries next week, according to dozens of interviews conducted by Univision News this month in central Florida.

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Many of the Puerto Rican newcomers are not registered to vote, and those who do often declare as independents, said Carolina Wassmer, who helps register Hispanic voters in Orlando with the organization Hispanic Federation. "That way they feel like they are not tied to any party," said Wassmer. "I tell them, 'But then you won't be able to vote in the primaries, if you like Hillary or Bernie, or Trump or Rubio, what are you going to do?'"

The lack of affiliation among some Puerto Ricans is not due to a lack of interest in the political process. On the island, turnout in elections has reached at least 75% of the electorate since 1952, according to official figures. But U.S. political parties are not like those in Puerto Rico, and the new arrivals are often unfamiliar with the ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats, or the nature of the electoral process.

"The difference is that in Puerto Rico, the elections are structured in a way that promotes voting," said Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, noting that election day is a holiday on the island. "It's very different in the United States where there has been a shift in the other direction, towards voter I.D. laws and other things that hinder the vote".

Some community leaders hope to mobilize Florida Puerto Rican voters in central Florida via potentially ground-breaking local campaigns, like those of Art Otero, a Republican who is seeking to be the first Puerto Rican mayor of Kissimmee, and of Darren Soto, a Democrat who could be the first Puerto Rican to represent Florida in the U.S. Congress.

Half the Hispanic population

More than 314,000 Puerto Ricans now live in the metropolitan area of Orlando, according to data from 2013 analyzed by the Pew Research Center . They make up 60% of the Hispanic population in Osceola County, which voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2004 but backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. The Puerto Ricans are also 48% of the Hispanic population of Orange, another county with a swing vote where Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry in 2004 by a slim 0.2% margin, or less than one thousand votes.

Out of 30 Puerto Ricans interviewed this month by Univision at various locations in Orlando and Kissimmee, a majority said they would vote for Clinton in November, although her Democratic Party opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders , and Republican Senator Marco Rubio , also appeared to have strong support. Rubio won 71% of the vote in Puerto Rico's own primary on Sunday.

Many of the "Boricuas", as Puerto Ricans call themselves, expressed uniform dislike for one of the candidates. "I think 99.9% of Hispanics here will vote for anyone but Donald Trump," said Lisandra Román, a Puerto Rican running for city commissioner in Kissimmee and owner of the restaurant Lechonera El Jibarito.

A message that won't take hold

Nonpartisan organizations like Mi Familia Vota and campaigns like #PRAgenda have started reaching out to Puerto Rican voters here.

But their message doesn't always meet the needs of Puerto Ricans in the area, according to Marcos Vilar, a political consultant from the island who has worked on various voter registration campaigns across Florida. "There's tremendous potential among Puerto Ricans, since they all can vote", Vilar said. "But the message brought here doesn't always take hold, since many national Hispanic campaigns are centered on the issue of immigration."

Mi Familia Vota, for example, focuses many of its workshops on the process of becoming a citizen of the United States. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth.) The organization also has only one local staff member who is Puerto Rican. "We're aware of that", said Esteban Garces, state director for Mi Familia Vota in Florida. "When we get new funds to expand our efforts, we'll work toward inscribing 33,000 new voters this year, and the Puerto Rican community will be at the forefront of that effort."

Unlike other Hispanic groups in the United States, some Puerto Ricans are not in favor of immigration reform. "Some of the things Trump says, you've got to listen to the guy", said José Marrero, a 70-year-old veteran who has also worked for as an immigration officer.

Marrero was one of the few Puerto Ricans who showed up at Acacia Centro Borinqueño, in Orlando, on the first day it opened as an early voting center. He said the U.S. economy was his biggest concern when voting, adding that Puerto Rico's economic crisis wasn't an electoral issue for him.

"I haven't lived there since 1967. And what they've got going on there (in the government) is a mess," he said.

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